Wear the damn seat belt!

Turbulence in the air is one of the biggest causes in injury on airplanes and yesterday saw a dramatic example of that, when a plane dropped 6,000 feet in just three minutes.

A British passenger has died and seven people have been critically injured after a flight from London to Singapore was hit by turbulence.

Passengers onboard the Singapore Airlines plane told of a “dramatic drop” that launched those not wearing a seatbelt into the cabin ceiling.

According to Thai authorities, the British passenger who died had a heart condition and probably had a heart attack. He was 73 and travelling with his wife. His identity has yet to be released.

Scientists have warned of increased turbulence, particularly “clear air turbulence” which is harder to detect or forecast, as global heating warms air at higher altitudes and makes weather more unpredictable.

One passenger on the flight, Dzafran Azmir, a 28-year-old student, told Reuters: “Suddenly the aircraft starts tilting up and there was shaking so I started bracing for what was happening, and very suddenly there was a very dramatic drop so everyone seated and not wearing a seatbelt was launched immediately into the ceiling.

“Some people hit their heads on the baggage cabins overhead and dented it. They hit the places where lights and masks are and broke straight through it.”

When you are in a plane, you can be lulled into thinking that seat belts are not necessary by the smoothness of the flight. But the only time you should remove the belt is if you have to get up for any reason.

Putting on the seat belt, whether in a car or in a plane, is one of the simplest and most effective safety precautions that one can do and yet some people find reasons to not do so. One excuse is that it restricts movement. That may have been true in the very earliest days but the inertial seats belts in cars now only lock in place in the event of a change in speed. Some people think you do not need to wear it in the back seat of a car but you still should to avoid hitting the front seat in an accident and in case the car flips over. Others think that you do not need to do so when traveling at low speeds such as in the city.

Then there are those who refuse to do so for what they consider ‘principled’ reasons, such as resenting the fact that laws require them to do so. Not wearing the seat belt is viewed as a defiant act in defense of freedom. Not all such people are stupid or anti-government extremists. I recall going in the car of a friend and academic colleague whom I greatly respected. I put on my seat belt and noticed that he did not do so. I thought he had forgotten but when I reminded him, he said that he deliberately chose not to do so.

I always wear my seat belt. And if I am the driver, I insist on everyone in the car wearing it too., including our dogs. I have written before that our dogs wore a harness that was attached to the center seat belt in the back seat. I understand the physics behind it and the power of Newton’s laws of motion that can cause serious injury when there is a sudden change in velocity.


  1. birgerjohansson says

    At the altitude passenger jets travel, there is not much of the turbulence you will encounter when travelling with a rurboprop. I can see that people will feel safe, especially if there is no visible thunderstorm ahead.

  2. birgerjohansson says

    (should be “turboprop”)

    I looked at the diagram in the article. The plane was travelling at ca. 37 000 ft, or 11 000 meters.
    Unless you fly straight into a thunderhead, there is very little ‘weather’ left that high. If the air contains moisture, it tends to condense as the air rises and if it has the energy to get that high you get a thunderstorm. Very dry, very hot air perhaps?

  3. mordred says

    Yeah, I can also be seriously annoying to my passengers about seat belts.
    Apart from also having some basic understanding of physics, I experienced the forces involved in a car crash when I was a kid. Even back then I understood that I would not have crawled out of my mothers car with only a concussion and some nasty bruises where the belts stopped my body if I had been thrown through the vehicle.
    As that happened in the 80s, seat belt laws were pretty new and I remember the discussions about them, with people complaining about being told what to do or that a seat belt would trap you in a burning car or the wrong sense of security would make you drive more risky.

    And only a few years ago I met someone who had gotten an additional latch plate to lock in the buckle of her cars driver seat so they could drive without the seat belt without the car’s reminder beeping all the time…

  4. Dennis K says

    Where I live, the police attentively, vigorously enforce the seat belt law. The $250 fine is a great motivator for all parties.

  5. mordred says

    Myself@3 Hmm, just checked when seat belt laws were actually introduced here in Germany. My memory was a bit faulty here. Wearing a seat belt became mandatory in the 70s, the discussions I remember happened whe fines were introduced, in 1984. Of course as long as not wearing a seat belt had no immediate consequences the law was widely ignored.

  6. Robbo says

    “One excuse is that it restricts movement. ”

    precisely. that’s how they are designed to work…

    they restrict your movement through a windshield. they restrict your movement crashing into the ceiling of a plane.

    a quick google showed in a lifetime of driving, people have an average of 3 or 4 accidents.

    so, it’s not really “if” you have an accident. it’s when.

    a crash at 20 mph is comparable to running into a wall at full speed. (Newton’s Laws FTW)

    do you think running into a wall at full speed won’t injure you?

    how about at 65 mph?

    if you don’t wear a seatbelt you are a dumbass, no matter what rationalization you have.

  7. Katydid says

    @3, mordred, I also remember the hullaballoo in the 1980s when my state made seat belt use mandatory. I expect it’s the same type of people who are defiant about wearing a mask during a pandemic--perpetual mental toddlers and nobody’s going to tell THEM what to do.

  8. Jean says

    I’ve done a bit of autocross and circuit car racing a long time ago and that gives you a new perspective on the usefulness of seat belts. It also gives you a new perspective on how good a driver you are (likely not as good as you think) but that’s a different story.

    With racing you realise that the belts are not only useful when you crash but also when you need to make extreme maneuvers. In racing that’s all the time but in normal driving that can be when you need to suddenly avoid a collision or other unexpected events. With a seat belt, you can remain in control of the car because you are restrained and not moving much; without a seat belt, you will likely lose control because you’re getting tossed around while trying to make the needed avoidance maneuvers. You’re just trying to hold on to the wheel and at the same time make precise wheel movements and pedal control.

    Even as a passenger, you need the seat belts in those non-crash events. I have been a passenger in a few autocross rounds. While it is obvious that you want the seat belt as a driver, you need them even more as a passenger. When driving, you are in control of what happens so you can anticipate the forces that you’ll feel and react appropriately to move less. As a passenger, even when paying very good attention and knowing what the driver will do, you still are reacting after the fact for each wheel movement and acceleration/braking event so there is a delay. And boy do you get tossed around while you try to hold on to the seat or a handle. I would never do that without a tight seat belt. And I would never ride in any car without a seat belt either as the driver or a passenger.

  9. Jörg says

    After one acident, my car had a dent in the roof. And I got a hematoma over my left clavicle from the seat belt. Without the belt, my neck probably would have been broken from the crash.

  10. garnetstar says

    Once when a plane I was on had landed and was taxi-ing in to the gate, the pilot suddenly *nailed* the brakes: you could feel the nose of the plane go way down.

    You’re supposed to not take off your seatbelt until they turn off the seat belt sign at the gate, and I still had it buckled. So, I got whiplashed forward and slammed my chest onto my thighs, but wasn’t hurt.

    Those who had unfastened their belts got thrown out of their seats and slammed into the seatback in front of them with great force, ended up collapsed in the footwells. So, you see, *keep your damn seatbelt on* until they turn the sign off!

    And, taxi-ing is at only about 40 miles/hour! Can’t even imagine what sort of force you might be thrown with dropping suddenly at cruising altitude.

    (The pilot slammed on the brakes because we were about to cross a runway that another jet was landing on. As I sat up, I saw the jet flash by out of the window, and since landing occurs at about 220 mph, we had a close call there.)

  11. Jazzlet says

    I have told this story before, but it bears repeating. Back when I worked as a road safety officer for a local council one of our campaigns was around getting rear seat passengers to belt up, and we had a series of road traffic collision reports to help us demonstrate how very stupid it is not to belt up. The one that stuck with me is of two couples, lifelong friends, all recently retired setting off on their first post work holiday in a car, husbands in the front, buckled up as the law required, wives in the back not restrained. There was a collision, not at great speed, but enough to throw the two women forward, each broke her husbands neck and killed him, while suffering minor injuries themselves; had the women been wearing their seat belts all four would have had minor injuries and gone on to enjoy their retirements together.

  12. John Morales says

    That may have been true in the very earliest days but the inertial seats belts in cars now only lock in place in the event of a change in speed.

    Which for me is basically every time I move — I tend to be a bit jerky in my movements.

    So, I’ll reach out or whatever and the damn thing will lock and I have to repeat in slow motion.
    Frustrating, but I do wear them. And of course, next time I move, I forget I have to do it in slow motion.

    Where I live, there’s a fine of $1,161 and four demerit points [out of 12] for failing to wear a seatbelt or not wearing it properly.
    There are cameras at many intersections to catch non-compliance.

  13. Silentbob says

    This is quite an extraordinary tale. Even if an aircraft began plummeting like a stone, you would not hit the ceiling, you would become “weightless” like an astronaut. To smash into the overhead apparatus such as to break it, the plane would have to be accelerating downward significantly faster than the acceleration due to gravity which is 9.81 m/s^2. That is, not just falling, but being violently forced down.

    P.S. 6,000 ft in 3 minutes is not extraordinary. It’s a normal descent rate.

    A commercial aircraft will typically descend at between 1,500 and 3,000 feet per minute.

    (I assume of course the plane didn’t tip upside down X-D )

  14. Silentbob says

    @ 12 Morales

    When I just pull the retractable seatbelt to put it on it locks up. X-D

    Not unusual to take several attempts to coax the thing out slowly.

  15. mordred says

    @12: Just out of curiosity (and being somewhat bored) I just checked A$$mazon for these latch plates to silence the seat belt reminder I mentioned: Yup they sell several models.

    Also they sell clips to put on the seat belt so it’s stopped from being pulled tight around your body. Should help with your problem, with a lose seat belt you should be able to move more freely, but I’m kinda sure you’d prefer to be actually protected in case of an accident!

    Other products in this category include a clip that connects the lap belt and shoulder belt on the outer side so the shoulder belt is pulled down below your shoulder. That’s supposed to protect your neck from injuries…

    FFS why are people so eager to risk unnecessary death and injury with no actual benefit to anyone -- except the assholes selling that crap.

  16. Katydid says

    @15, I can assure you that back in the 1980s, my mother drove with the seat belt draped over her but not connected to the latch because FREEDUMBZ. She was beating the system by merely looking as if she was wearing her seatbelt correctly. Of course this is many levels of stupid and I don’t recommend it.

  17. birgerjohansson says

    It might have been Volvo that pioneered the use of seat belts that only turn rigid during sudden movement, I know for sure the old, non-adjustable (apart from a slow process) belts were seen as annoying.

    The worst example in aviation was the early pilot harness for the Short Stirling WWII long-range bomber. Pilots routinely took it off , despite regulations.
    Bomber Command noticed Stirlings started to crash nose-down for no apparent reason.
    The Stirling tended to go nose down when dived past its safe speed envelope, and the top brass finally decided to introduce a more user-friendly pilot harness, and the mysterious crashes ceased to happen.

  18. outis says

    @16: here’s something better (by which I mean worse).
    In the mid-80’s belts became mandatory in Italy too, and what happened? Some bright sparks started selling t-shirts with a black diagonal stripe printed on them, so that the wearer would look as if they were properly strapped in, at least from a distance. Again, because of freedom!
    Indeed stupidity knows no bounds.

  19. file thirteen says

    @silentbob #13

    Flying through turbulence involves being regularly buffeted up and down: it’s not just a case of sometimes falling under gravity. A buffet down will send everything not strapped in flying upwards. I’ve experienced a flight where people would have surely hit the ceiling had they not been strapped in. The shock and fear on the face of the flight attendant, also belted in but facing me, I won’t forget.

  20. Mano Singham says

    silentbob @#13,

    If a plane lost all power and then started to fall under gravity, starting with zero vertical velocity, then indeed people would become ‘weightless’ and float.

    But as I understand it, turbulence is not like that. It exerts an impulsive force on the plane that indeed creates a sudden and very large downward acceleration.

  21. John Morales says

    In the news: https://www.theguardian.com/world/article/2024/may/23/passengers-suffer-brain-and-spinal-injuries-on-singapore-flight-hit-by-extreme-turbulence

    Adinun Kittiratanapaibool, director of Bangkok’s Samitivej Srinakarin hospital, said his staff were treating six people for skull and brain injuries, 22 for spinal injuries, and 13 for bone, muscle and other injuries.

    “We have never treated people with these kinds of injuries caused by turbulence,” he told reporters.

    Seventeen surgeries have already been performed — nine spinal surgeries and eight for other injuries, he said.

  22. John Morales says

    Update: https://www.theguardian.com/world/article/2024/may/29/singapore-airlines-turbulence-altitude-drop-flight-data

    The Singapore Airlines flight hit by severe turbulence last week dropped 54 metres in altitude in less than five seconds, preliminary findings from an investigation show.

    A 73-year-old British passenger died of a suspected heart attack and dozens of people were injured after flight SQ321 from London to Singapore encountered what the airline described as sudden, extreme turbulence while flying over Myanmar. The flight carrying 211 passengers and 18 crew diverted to Bangkok for an emergency landing.

    “The aircraft experienced a rapid change in G (gravitational force) … This likely resulted in the occupants who were not belted up to become airborne,” Singapore’s transport ministry said in a statement on a report by the Transport Safety Investigation Bureau.

    “The vertical acceleration changed from negative 1.5G to positive 1.5G within 4 seconds. This likely resulted in the occupants who were airborne to fall back down,” it said, citing information extracted from the flight data and cockpit voice recorders.

    Velocity, first derivative.
    Acceleration, the second.
    Rate of change of acceleration, third.

    (Technical term is ‘jerk’)

  23. sonofrojblake says

    Most people look up at the air and see clouds, peacefully floating by… because air is invisible, so you can’t see the currents.

    For a long while, I spent all my spare time up amongst it in an aircraft I could lift with one hand and carry on my back, looking for bits of air that were going up and trying to get out of bits that were going down. From time to time I encountered the shear layer between those two bits of air. At the altitudes I was dealing with (never much more than six and a half thousand feet), I never came across anything violent. I never went straight up at much more than 5m/s, or straight down much faster than that.

    But someone has. Eva Wisnierska, specifically. She went into a thundercloud in Australia, and incredibly, came out alive (another pilot who went into the same cloud didn’t). You can read a bit about it here:

    Specifically, you can see a picture of her altimeter/gps from just after she landed. If you’re a paraglider pilot, that screen readout is chilling -- terrifying in fact. At some point, she was heading STRAIGHT UP at over 45mph. At another point, she was heading STRAIGHT DOWN at almost SEVENTY FIVE mph. Her altitude topped out at 9945m, over 32,000 feet… well over six MILES.

    I mention all this to remind those who don’t think about it much that the air above you is a violent, roiling, turbulent place really most of the time, to a far greater degree than most realise. That airliners don’t suffer this sort of thing more often is a tribute to weather detection, forecasting, planning and piloting.

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